Baptism for the dead

This is a religious studies post more than a philosophy post.

A few days ago Pope Benedict XVI canonized some new saints.  One was Father Damien (a priest known for his work with lepers in Hawaii in the 19th century).  Well, it turns out the LDS Church had posthumously baptized him into the LDS Church (read about it here).  Not only that, they posthumously married him (remember – he was a celibate priest!), sealing him for eternity to someone named Marie.  I had never heard of posthumous marriage, and I find it hard to come up with any justification for it.  Setting that aside, I rather suspect that Fr. Damien – assuming he was interested in giving up his celibacy – would have liked being able to choose his wife!

Of course there has been quite a lot of controversy around the LDS practice of baptism for the dead with regards to Nazis and Holocaust victims.  For my part, I am not sure how I feel about it.  On one hand, I simply find it silly and I don’t care.  I’ll be frank without intending any disrespect:  why should I care about this any more than I would care about someone vesting Fr. Damien posthumously in a Zeus religion, since I think both religions are false and so neither ritual exercise makes any difference?

On the other hand, it is hard to not find it rather disrespectful (even though I can see that it is likely done out of good intentions).  Perhaps not only disrespectful but also harmful.  I am referring to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics I.11 where he argues that posthumous events can have an effect on the dead (if misfortune befalls descendants, or if the deceased person comes to be associated with evil then his reputation that lives on in memory will be harmed).  It is worth noting, though, that Aristotle thinks none of these effects are “of such a kind and degree as neither to make the happy unhappy nor to produce any other change of the kind.”  So Saint Damien will (or rather is) resting in peace.

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

21 thoughts on “Baptism for the dead”

  1. First I find it odd in the Tribune article that a former Catholic would be so outraged. As the church spokesmen said, it is a rule that you have to be the relative in order to submit names. Who is to say that it was not a relative of St. Damien that submitted his name? I realize this is a very sensitive subject, but I think that a lot of people do not understand the doctrine of the baptism for the dead fully, or it could be that they do not want to hear it. I would first like to explain it in order to show everyone why it is necessary for the church to perform baptisms for the dead. By my explanation, I m not trying to justify those who have been baptized posthumously without permission, and I think that if one does their research the Church has tried to do the best they can in trying to stop that from happening.
    The main scriptural basis for baptisms for the dead is found in the book of Peter chapter 4:3-6. It says, “For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries. Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you. Who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead? For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to the flesh, but live according to God in spirit.”
    Basically Peter here is talking about those people who mocked Christians for living without worldly sins, and then he asks the question, “Who shall give an account of them who is ready to judge the quick and the dead?” He answers his own question by saying that “For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead.”
    Now one might now say that Peter is speaking about those who are really alive, but he is speaking about those who are “spiritually dead” but not physically dead. Well, in 1st Corinthians 15:18,19 and 29. Paul was also speaking about Christ and His resurrection, and explaining the significance of it for mankind. He says “Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. And when all things are subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?”
    Paul here is speaking of the ancient Church performing Baptisms for the dead, and telling his fellow Christians that if Christ did not rise from the dead and that there is no resurrection when we die, then why should we be baptized for the dead?
    Let just add one more scripture that I think people may find interesting. (There are alot of scriptures that could be shared, especially in connection with the Spirit of Elijah, and the turning of the hearts of the fathers to their children and their hearts being turned as well, which I think gives a very good answer to the Aristotle that was quoted) In John Chapter 20 verse 17, The risen Christ is in appearance to Mary Magdalene and makes an interesting claim to where He had been before He appeared to her. “Jesus saith unto her, touch me not for I am not yet ascended to my father, but go to my brethren and say to them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God, and your God.” When he died on the cross he did mention that his spirit was to go to his Father, but Jesus told Mary that he had not yet ascended to his Father. Where was Jesus? Did Jesus visit His Father in the spirit first?, and then came back down to take his body again? That is a good question, but then what about Paul and his mentioning of the Baptisms for the dead? I believe that Jesus was in the Bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:22-23) or in other words a spirit realm where preaching of the Gospel of Christ is being taught. Also Jesus said He had not ascended anywhere, so could He have been with His Father? Does not God dwell in Heaven somewhere? I would imagine you ascend into Heaven. But really I do not know. As Jesus claimed, “one cannot enter into Heaven without being born of water and the spirit” (Somewhere in John) Mormons believe as well as other Christians believe, that baptism is necessary for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. The difference between us and the other Christian sects is that we believe that those who did not receive a baptism by the right authority here on earth will have a second opportunity to receive one when they are dead.
    Now I know that is a bold claim to say that the Mormons in fact do have the authority from God to baptize, but that is indeed what we claim. Other religions as well claim the same thing, but I can say that I have not heard a whole lot of other religions explain these scriptures in such a coherent way as the LDS church does. There have been members of the Church that have done Baptisms for the dead without the permission of other peoples ancestor’s and that is wrong, and the Church has tried to do its best to fix that. Since the LDS church is big on authority, I imagine, and this is my interpretation so you can hold me accountable for this view, but not the church, that if one does not have the authority from the persons necessary to do the baptisms, I wonder if God will find them valid? If that is the case, then I think that the big uproar may cease a little, although it will probably still make people uncomfortable. What I have tried to explain is the religious foundation for such a practice and the seriousness that Mormons take when it comes to other peoples eternal salvation.
    Thanks for reading my post, I think that the church has tried to take the kind of comments that Professor Kleiner has brought up seriously. I hope that my explanations of some of the scriptures concerning this issue has brought a better understanding.


  2. Thank you Jake, for the pretty thorough review of the LDS account of such things. What you have said sounds right, as compared to what has been explained to me before and what I have read. A few quick comments:

    1) Mormons make a lot of hay out of 1Cor15:29 (almost all of the other scriptures are LDS scriptures, not biblical), but their interpretation is way outside of the mainstream reading. First of all, the Greek passage there (huper ton nekron) is ambiguous and it is far from clear that “for the dead” is the best rendering. More importantly, the “they” who practice baptism for the dead are never identified, though in the rest of 1Cor 15 Paul uses “we” to refer to Christians. Since there is really no other evidence in the Bible or in the writings of the early Church Fathers that baptism of the dead was being practiced, the rest of the Christian world has opted for other reasonable interpretations of the passage.

    2) The whole thing seems unnecessary. If God is a just judge, I don’t expect that He will hold people accountable for what they did not and perhaps could not have known. (If baptism is necessary, as Mormons believe, then do Mormons thereby believe there is no hope for the deceased whose names have been lost to history?).
    Scripture itself suggests that if people live up to the truth as they know and if they would have accepted Christ (truth) had they been exposed to it, they can be saved (Rom 2:15-16). Scripture reveals that the graces of the HS can be given without baptism (Acts 10:44-48). This is the sort of thing that many Christians refer to as the “baptism of desire”.

    3) A group that I imagine has done its research into whether the LDS church has tried their best to stop abuses from happening decided in 2008 to stop negotiating with the LDS church to prevent such things, because they were convinced the LDS church was not negotiating in good faith (American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors).

    4) Even if it is a rule that you have to be a relative of the person to submit a name, I don’t particularly see how that helps. Who cares if a relative of St. Damien’s submitted his name? Why is it wrong (as Jake says) to do a posthumous baptism without the permission of a person’s ancestors, but not wrong to do it with the permission of ancestors? Either way, you are not getting the permission of the only person who can really give permission for such things!
    As it is, a better understanding of the doctrine does not make me think it is any less disrespectful.


  3. So the Catholic church can’t baptize him back again? I guess it wouldn’t matter if they did, since the LDSers would probably just back go at it again (unless the Catholics called “no touch-backs”).


  4. Catholics don’t practice baptism for the dead (and in fact deny that a baptism would ever need to be “re-done”). And it is unnecessary, since Catholics would deny that the LDS baptism is accomplishing anything. This was my point in the first post: I don’t think the LDS baptism accomplishes anything ontologically. I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but anyone who denies the truth of Mormonism also denies the efficacy of any of Mormonism’s religious rituals. So there is no need to “re-claim him” since nothing really happened.
    My only complaint was that – even though nothing is really happening here – there is something disrespectful about. Mormons seem to appreciate this, so they only do baptisms for the dead on the request of an ancestor (that they make this restriction implies that they see there is something disrespectful about just doing it to strangers). But I don’t see how getting the permission of an ancestor makes a piss of difference.


  5. Church of Mike ™ has him covered. No baptism required.

    I was baptized Catholic as a baby without my consent and hereby grant my consent to be baptized after death. If you try to throw some posthumous wives my way you’ll have to work that out with Sarah. She’s always wanted a wife.


  6. Excellent counter-point, Mike. Though I am inclined to think that there is a difference between baptizing the dead (who as adults made intentional choices as to what to believe and how to direct their lives) and baptizing infants (which involves the rights of parents to make decisions on behalf of their children).

    By the way, Sherlock tells me that there is such a thing as posthumous “eternal marriage sealings”, but he was under the impression that this was only done with people who were married in this life. He is dubious of the claim in the SLC Tribune, since it was made by someone he considers an ex-mormon crank.


    1. Sherlock is right, the people had to have been married in this life. Although, in the nineteenth century there were a bunch of women who supposedly had themselves “sealed” to Joseph Smith long after Smith’s death. I don’t know what the Church thinks about these sealing today, but it’s current practice is to only do posthumous sealings for people who were actually married when alive.


  7. Hello, her is some of my responses to professor Kleiner:
    1. I am aware of the ambiguity of the text, but the other scriptures I quoted come from the King James Bible. I do not understand what you mean by the others being LDS?

    2. God will not hold people accountable for what they did not know, that is why Mormons believe that when a person departs from this life, they will have the opportunity to learn all the things necessary for salvation before judgment. In other words there will not be any excuses or any ignorance of the Gospel of Christ when people are finally judged. Also people who do live up to the truth they know, of course can be saved, if they accept the complete Gospel of Christ before they are judged. They will have the chance to hear the complete truth when they die. I believe that is the “amazing grace” that Christ offers to mankind. Mormons in a sense believe in “after death bed repentance.”

    3. I remember the group you mention, and I also know that the leaders of the LDS church had very long discussions with the group on how to fix the problem. I just think it is unfair to say that they have not seriously tried. I know the church listened to the group seriously and have involved them in the necessary changes they wanted made. I am not saying that you are saying that, but I have heard that notion being tossed around.

    4. It is true that the real choice of the person is crucial. Mormons believe they will have that choice as I explained in the 2 paragraph. But we believe that person will not be able to accept that choice if the baptism is not performed.

    Anyways,I thought I would reply. Hope you have a good day!


  8. Correction to number 4. Mormons believe the person will not be able to “make” that choice, not “accept” that choice. Sorry


  9. Nobody had responded to Harrison’s question in 2) above: (If baptism is necessary, as Mormons believe, then do Mormons thereby believe there is no hope for the deceased whose names have been lost to history?) Jake just said they will not be able to make that choice if the baptism is not performed. And the proxy baptism must be done here on earth, so what about those people who have left no record?


  10. That is a good question Ryan. My answer is that although their might be people whose names have been lost to history, they are not lost to God. The scriptures also talk about a millennium where Christ will reign and the His Gospel will be preached as well to those who have been lost to history. I dont recall if I said that proxy baptism must be performed on earth, but if someone did not leave any record, they themselves will have the opportunity to be baptized during the millennium. Jesus in His parable about the lost sheep, said “What Shepherd will not go out and find the lamb that is not part of the flock?” Proxy baptism is one way to bring His “sheep” to the fold, but He also will have other means of finding “those that are lost” and that will be accomplished during the millennial reign of Christ on earth. Read the book of Revelation, and the book of Matthew. Those are the books I am using here. I imagine there will be other questions, but I hope that answers paragraph 2.


  11. Baptism as understood by traditional Jewish and Christian thought is the removal of original sin–sin means in Judaic terms, “separation”. Baptism is not understood as the membership to a religion. If you look at the two stories that pertain to original sin, the first is the account in Genesis of the Garden of Eden. There, Adam and Eve are sent away from the presence of God for using their free will against His wish for them. The profundity of this story is that they are no longer able to see or hear God after leaving this perfect relationship. In the story of Jesus’ Baptism by John, the sky rips open, and people hear God’s voice and see Christ as “the Son of God”. It is the the first time a collective group hears and sees God again, thus the end of original sin or “original separation” from God.
    This is why Baptism of the Dead is non-sensical from the Judeo-Christian point of view. It is no longer about being in the presence of God, but is about membership to a particular faith. I agree that is “means nothing” to baptize a dead saint, but also agree that it is insulting. St. Damien celebrated his end of separation with God through his baptism in the Roman Catholic faith. To the traditional Jewish and Catholic mind, what is insulting is the failure to know what original sin is in the first place.


  12. A quick thought. What does it matter to anyone else, other than a Mormon? It’s kinda like atheists protesting prayers in school, or prayers before the start of a public meeting. If they don’t believe in God or a diety in any form, then what’s all the fuss? As long as believers of any faith do not force the atheist to participate, then the atheist’s arguments are rather ironic at best. Probably disingenuous. And so it is with the Mormons and their post-mortem baptism. I don’t believe in it, so it brings no controversy. Ah, one may ask, what if they baptised me after my death or baptised one of my family members post-mortem? My answer is: they can do whatever they want. It has as much validity for me as if they said: OK, now that you’re dead, you have punched your ticket to live on Planet Tupelo until the arrival of Elvis who will bring you and the rest of us back to Graceland where we will spend eternity itching like a man on a fuzzy tree.


  13. Something that I think should also be considered is the fact that baptism is supposed to create greater accountability. Upon excommunication from the church, all your baptismal covenants are revoked and you have to be re-baptized in order to have them again. The excommunication process is, in actuality, supposed to be a merciful process because if you continued to reject the “truth”, and continue in a sinful way, being baptized will only make you more accountable and make your punishment worse.

    Now doesn’t it seem that baptizing these people in death who will not accept the truth, just so they have the opportunity, is in a sense “screwing them over”? Are you not giving these people more responsibility by baptizing them against their will? Why not just baptize everyone even if they’re still alive, because they can accept it later?


  14. You commented about LDS theology being way outside the mainstream as though mainstream Christianity was the standard by which all theological discussions must be compared. I suppose to an historic Christian that is the case. However, the main point of Mormon theology is that historic Christianity is a only a fragment of what was had and taught by Christ and the first century Christians. Recent work by scholars provides us with myriad works of early Christianity makes it quite clear that by the fourth century Christianity had morphed into something unrecognizable by the first century Christians. The study of that phenomenon is quite interesting and very enlightening if even from just an historic perspective. It certainly makes it clear there are serious deficiencies in what mainstream Christianity teaches today versus what Christ and the apostles taught.


  15. One more thing. If someone wants to say that belief and faith are the standard then I have to say that just because someone believes a certain oak tree is God does not make it Deity. I am not discounting faith. I Have it too. But it must be based on a wider understanding and personal, and hopefully independently verified, searching for whatever truth is out there and continuing to add to it. I have to say most modern Christian denominations I see recommend refusing to seek added light. It is like stuffing one’s head into the sand and hoping that all the evidence contrary ones limited understanding will just go away. It won’t. However there is a key to understanding what one sees and reads and the LDS theology seems to make a ton more sense once you understand it. It is, no one needs another man to tell them what is real and what isn’t. God will tell you through the Holy Ghost if you follow His rules. You don’t need a pastor or priest to interpret for you. All you need is an average desire to know and willingness to follow Christian principles including sincere prayer. Beats the heck out of hellfire and damnation.


  16. All I meant by my remark that the LDS view was outside the mainstream was this: Jake was trying to argue that his view made the best sense of the NT. All I meant to suggest was that most readers of the NT (that is, non-Mormon Christians) disagree with his reading. But of course Mormon readings are much different than those of “historical Christianity”, because Mormonism is a totally different religion than all of the rest of “Christianity” (with different views on the nature of God, the number of gods, the nature of man, and the nature of salvation).

    Christian doctrine has developed through history, and certain Christian teachings (like the Trinity) took some time to develop. I know that Mormons claim to be closer to early Christianity, but I just think they are wrong in this claim. For instance, read the Church Fathers and you will see that they are monotheists. But Mormons certainly seem committed to the view that something went wrong, and they are free to believe that. But they will have trouble consistently holding such a view. If the Church had lost its way after the 1st century, then you should not trust your Bible, for the biblical cannon was not really decided until the 3rd century and not really formalized until the 4th century.

    But JLFuller will get no disagreement with me on this: simply believing something is true does not make it true. One question is whether or not faith X is actually compatible with a “wider understanding” of things. I agree with you that too many contemporary Christian denominations refuse to seek “added light”. But I would disagree with you that the “added light” must be so fideistic. I’d appeal to reason too (both scientific and philosophical). And I totally disagree with you that you don’t need help interpreting the Scriptures. Protestantism is just wrong about this. If the “plain meaning” of the Scriptures was so plain, then why are there some 30,000 Christian denominations in the world? Even Mormons seem to reject this view, which is why they give their “Prophet” hierarchical power to make judgments for the entire LDS church.

    This will be my last post on this, I stopped caring about it quite some time ago.


  17. One last comment and then I am done too. “In 1895 there was found in Egypt a Coptic papyrus purporting to contain an account of the teaching of Christ to his apostles after the resurrection. The most learned church historian of modern times, Adolf von Harnack, was prompted to point out that this document was neither “a provincial production of the Egyptian Church” nor a brainchild of the Gnostics, but an authentic statement of certain important doctrines of salvation and resurrection common to the whole Christian church at a very early date. Shortly after, Carl Schmidt, second only to Harnack in his knowledge of early Christian documents, produced a number of ancient fragments, matching the Coptic text word for word in a half dozen languages and showing it to be derived from the Greek original of an apostolic general epistle which had enjoyed widespread authority and popularity in the church at least as early as the second century. The subject of this epistle was salvation for the dead, a doctrine which, as Schmidt demonstrated, was believed in the early church to have been the main theme of Christ’s teaching after the resurrection”. Nibley 1987

    There is a lot of information to support the LDS doctrine of baptism for the dead from non-LDS sources.


  18. Part 2
    “As the early texts were compared with each other and with the testimony of the oldest church writers, it became apparent that the main weight of early Christian doctrine was not on the cross (the Blut und Kreuztheologie of later times) but on the work of the Lord as a teacher, marking the way of eternal progress for the living and the dead according to a pattern first followed by Adam, to whom the texts attribute an importance out of all proportion to the teachings of the later church. This new light on the early Christian teachings was not hailed with enthusiasm by some people, who for obvious reasons preserve a discreet silence regarding the many discoveries of recent years which call for a complete readjustment of accepted patterns and concepts. For Latter-day Saints, however, the new findings should be thrice welcome, proving as they do the keen interest among the Saints of the primitive church in the subject of work for the dead. The purpose of the present paper is to pass in review those passages from early Christian sources which can shed some light on beliefs and practices connected with baptism for the dead in ancient times. We shall see how the early Saints answered the question “What is to become of the righteous dead who have never been baptized?” a question that sorely perplexed the doctors of the medieval church who, lacking the knowledge of earlier times, were forced to choose between a weak law that allowed the unbaptized to enter heaven, and a cruel God who damned the innocent.”


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